Some 1,100 Palestinian inmates held in prisons across Israel have been on a hunger strike for five weeks and fears they might be subjected to force-feeding are growing. The inmates are calling for the improvement of what they claim are poor detention conditions.
The strike is heightening tensions between Palestinians and the Israeli government, which has deemed the action as "politically motivated". The Israeli Prison Service said it refuses to "negotiate with prisoners", believed to have been consuming just salt and water since 17 April.
Is force-feeding legal in Israel?
The practice of force-feeding is legal in Israel as the Knesset introduced a force-feeding law in 2015, enabling authorities to feed hunger-striking prisoners against their will. The law was upheld by the High Court in 2016.
When the bill was passed, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said: "I will promote the bill and not let [prisoners] harm the security of the state or succumb to any threats. This is also a humane issue. Just as I expect a prison guard who sees a prisoner trying to hurt himself to prevent it — we must also prevent a risk of death by hunger striking."
According to the law, force-feeding can be carried out if representatives from the prison service manage to prove the life of hunger-striking prisoners is at risk, receive the approval of the attorney general and permission from the district court.
The law also says that authorities should make every effort to obtain prisoners' permission, according to local media.
What is the position of the medical community?
There are 3.3 doctors per 1,000 people in Israel, according to 2012 data by the World Bank. This means that out of a population of 8.3 million, 27,390 are doctors. The country is a powerhouse of medical research and the profession prides itself on treating all patients equally.
In 2015 Bloomberg's Global Health Index ranked Israel the sixth healthiest country in the world, taking into account data from the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Health Organization. Israel was the only Middle-Eastern country to appear in the top 10, and the United States, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, and U.K., all ranked lower than Israel.
Doctors in Israel are not obliged to carry out force-feeding.
Ran Goldstein, head of rights group Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), told IBTimes UK: "As far as we know, no one has really used the law. One of the reasons is because no one from the medical community will cooperate with this kind of act.
"Doctors should only care about the will of the patient and if the patient says that they don't want any treatment, doctors should not cooperate," he continued.
The World Medical Association considers force-feeding as a practice that goes "against the principle of individual autonomy. It is a degrading treatment, inhumane and may amount to torture."
Independent organisation Israel Medical Association (IMA), which represents physicians in Israel, is against the practice and has called on its members not to carry out the treatment, deemed as "legally and ethically flawed".
As doctors in Israel have signalled they do not intend to force-feed striking prisoners, the Israeli Health Ministry (IHM) ordered doctors who refuse to force-feed striking Palestinian prisoners to find other physicians to carry out the practice.
IHM also reportedly considered bringing in foreign doctors to force-feed the prisoners with Channel 2 in Israel reporting that a specific but unidentified country had been established by the IHM to carry out the practice in Israeli prisons, local media reported.
Is force-feeding against human rights?
Michael Lynk, a United Nations special rapporteur visiting Israel and the Middle Eastern territories, said on Tuesday (16 May): "Prisoners everywhere have a right to engage in hunger strikes to protest their living conditions, and they should not be punished as a result. Force-feeding is a practice that human rights experts have found could amount to torture."
Goldstein believes doctors should not be involved in a strike that PHRI and the medical association consider as political.
"The demands of the strikers are very clear and there is a solution. Doctors should not be the ones who provide such solution as the matter has to be resolved between the prison service and the hunger strikers," he said.